Credit: Visakan Veerasamy

Today’s coffee thoughts are about “what you can’t say”.

Recently a bunch of professor types got together at a forum to admonish civil servants for not speaking up. “Singapore needs more naysayers,” they said.

I can’t help but think of all the people who’ve spoken up over the years only to be told that they said the wrong thing. They get arrested, detained, searched, have their computers confiscated. This very obviously has a chilling effect on everybody else, and I think it’s intellectually dishonest for “thought leaders” to avoid examining the institutional forces that keep people fearful. There were plenty of naysayers in the 1960s, what happened to them?

Nobody (as far as I know) teaches you to dissent elegantly. [EDIT: check out] Most of the people I know who takes the trouble to speak up against the status quo do it because they have strong convictions and beliefs – and so they tend to be rough around the edges. (This is why there are so many opposition parties. If they were able to compromise on the issues they disagree on, they would’ve have joined the ruling party.)

When I look at someone like Amos Yee (just picking a recent public example), I see a dodgy rocket engine shabbily put together with duct tape. It’s never going to meet safety standards, and it’s definitely going to blow up and cause some damage here and there. But what do you think Steve Jobs was like as a teenager? Can you imagine being Shakespeare’s English teacher?

I think 99% of naysayers are almost necessarily sassy smartass types. They’re pranksters, tricksters, clowns. Cheeky. Mischievous. You can’t really have it both ways. I’ve never met a compliant, well-behaved naysayer who has perfect knowledge of precisely how and when to criticize.

Anyway the point I’m circling around is this: I think our elites are being naive or intellectually dishonest when they bemoan that Singaporeans are uncreative, afraid of failure, of losing face, of dissenting or speaking up. They should be talking about the conditions that created the culture.

We crush the caterpillars and complain there are no butterflies.

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